Holding Space

After nearly 20 years in the mental health field, I have decided that perhaps the most important concept I have learned is that of holding space. This is true no matter what role I am playing – therapist, mother, wife, daughter, sister or friend. Many years ago, very early in my training at the Gestalt Institute of Phoenix, a wise faculty member shared the following revelation “People are starving for a witness to their existence.” In our fast paced, fix-it, task oriented society it can be easy to miss the opportunity to hold space for those who seek our ears and often our guidance. I am a true believer that the answers lie within.

At the very core of the Eagala Model of equine-assisted psychotherapy is the foundation belief that our clients possess the answers. It is our job to create a safe space for those answers to rise to awareness and to ask the right questions and provide the right activities to bring that awareness to the foreground. I feel fortunate to see this happen every day.

“Janey” called one cool December morning to ask if she could come in for a “tune up” session – the semester was ending and she needed some perspective. Her mother found me when Janey was very young and struggling several major losses in her life. Over the years, she would come back for a handful of sessions to process challenges as they arose in her young life.

Today she gave no explanation for her need to come be with the horses other than perspective. She arrived with a heaviness to her presence – no bubbly smile or spring in her step – just a seriousness in her face that let me know there was a lot going on in her head. After a brief mindful breathing practice and check in with her body we stepped into the arena. Her step was purposeful and swift as she moved deep into the pasture to approach a horse she has worked with many times over the past 8 years. He lifted his head and reached his nose towards her as she approached. Her shoulders immediately dropped and I could hear a soft giggle as the tension left her body. After a few moments with him, she visited several other horses before returning to silently stand beside me. When asked what she needed today her reply was “I am not sure – just that I need to be here.”

We stood quietly side-by-side for 40 minutes. Her gaze primarily focused on her old friend and two other horses as they interacted. I stayed focused on the horses and Janey’s shifts in presence, patterns that presented, and unique interactions that unfolded and periodically checked in with my own internal state. She spoke only twice – once to draw reference to an interaction that was meaningful and at closing as she stated “This IS what I needed – to be still”. She then wished me a Merry Christmas, got in her car, and went home. Her mother later shared that “Janey” had not shared what happened in the pasture but something clearly shifted.

Did I have a dozen questions? Of course, I did. However, those questions were about me and would have intruded on a process that was unfolding within her. It is likely that my questions will organically be answered in our next session.

Of course, not all of my sessions are silent and still. Holding space takes on many forms. Sometimes we build/create, sometimes we story tell to the horses, sometimes we create art on the horses or dress them up and sometimes they carry our burdens. The important thing is that we create the space for learning, growth and healing to happen. In my work this is what allows my clients to connect with, and feel safe to address the next level of work that is bubbling to the surface. In my personal life it allows a friend or family member to find the avenue to their answer.

I struggled to find a topic for this blog so I gave myself some space and stepped away from it. I closed my eyes and grabbed a book off the shelf that I have had since high school, The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Yes, I have nerdy side. As I opened it, a note fell out that a friend wrote to me 40 years ago. It said “So much is said about those always talking, and so little about those always listening. You are one of those who is always listening. That is your gift.” and POOF, the holding space idea was there. Give yourself and the people in your life the gift of space.

If you would like the opportunity to visit our herd, with no strings attached… go to www.boisesgift.org and sign up to be notified about our Join the Herd events… no plan, no therapy, no activities… just BE!

Another New Year

I must admit there are two parts of me that show up each new year. One is excited and in anticipation of new experiences; the deepening of relationships, getting in better shape, new adventures, and putting behind the challenges of the previous year. The other part enters the new year somewhat less optimistic… I am getting older, so is it realistic to believe I can get in better shape; more challenges at work mean more exhaustion and discouragement; will I really enjoy new experiences or stay preoccupied with the challenges; and will relationships improve or prove to be more difficult. This internal tug of war creates an ambivalent attitude toward the new year and typically leads to a certain degree of numbness. You may relate to this process or look at each new year with all out enthusiasm, or perhaps you simply dread the coming of a new year. Wherever you find yourself, here is a proposal for each of us.

First, let’s reflect on our successes, no mater how few or many, as well as moments where life was good, no mater how long or short. Please do not keep these to yourself, share them with others! If their year was more challenging than yours empathize with them or if they had a more marvelous year than you celebrate with them and let it be an encouragement to you. Either way you will deepen your relationships.

Second, question what you learned from the previous year’s experiences. What did they reflect about you, your lifestyle, work, and relationships. In the struggles and the successes what did they teach you about self? If your mind takes you toward a negative perspective of self, open your mind to the possibility that every difficulty has a complimentary positive/constructive element to it. On the other hand, if your mind takes you to how wonderful you are, consider what you may have missed since every positive has a corresponding challenge to it. Pondering the balance in life can serve to setle us and deepen our connection with self. This otien leads to increased connection with others.

Lastly, consider a process to develop a path in support of accomplishing what you hope for this year. If you process verbally, discuss with those close to you your hopes and perhaps you’re your dreams. If you process through writing; make lists, journal, or even write a short story. For those visual folks create a vision board, draw, paint, and/or construct a collage. Whichever way you process, take advantage of your strengths, do it your own way.

I hope we all learn to embrace both the challenges and wonder this year will bring!

Creating A Legacy

Last Thanksgiving, it was important for my adult children to gather with their spouses and grandchildren. It had become apparent that Thanksgiving did not hold the same value to my children as it did to me.

“Legacy is not what I did for myself. I’m doing it for the next generation.” – Vitor Belfort.

My childhood memories of Thanksgiving are filled with smells, extended family, and anticipation as we eagerly awaited my grandmother to announce the turkey was done. The next few moments would be a scurry of movement as the gravy thickened and the last few dishes were placed at the large tables. What took hours would be finished in 15 minutes, but those memories are treasured.

So how do families transfer what is important to our changing world as our priorities and food consumption change? Do we require our offspring to continue a tradition for the tradition’s sake? Should they make grandmother’s cranberry jello even though no one eats it?

A better question begins with what is essential to share with future generations. The answer does return the memories surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday. While I may love pumpkin pie and the smell of turkey, millennials or Gen X may prefer a different menu. When asked, most agreed the family gathering was important. The passing of the dish should be the focus, not what is inside the emphasis.

How can we move this concept from one day a year to incorporate other traditions, mindsets, and ideas?

Create your own family matters worth sharing list. Here are a few ideas.

  • Faith and spirituality
  • Traditions
  • Financial advice
  • Family values
  • Hobby how-tos
  • Cooking – not just recipes
  • Child-rearing advice
  • Advice on education
  • Advice on relationships
  • Caring for the environment
  • Giving back, gratitude, and serving

The process will not only allow you to reflect on what is of value to share, but it also allows for an opportunity to reflect on your values. A little reflection can highlight some inconsistencies in current behaviors and mindsets. As a family, we are working towards creating our legacy. We did find gaps in our expression of the importance of faith, servitude, and sharing traditions. The good news is that we started the process.

“The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The work of life is to develop it. The meaning of life is to give your gift away.” ― David Viscott

Horses: a Bridge to Healing?

The road to healing can be long and winding with many obstacles. Sometimes we need a bridge…

It was a warm March afternoon as I stood with a father as we watched his children greet the horses in my arena. After a few months of sessions the boys invited him to attend an equine-assisted psychotherapy session with us. The father commented on how helpful our work had been in helping his children find their voice, develop the ability to pause, set respectful boundaries, and find a safe place to share their pain and fears.

I encouraged him to join his sons in the arena as they said hello to the horses. He replied that he was here because the children had asked him to come and he really did not think we could be of much help to him – therapy had not been helpful to him in the past. He went on to share that he had tried everything the VA could offer him since he returned from Vietnam decades earlier. I nodded and invited him to consider that it might be fun to brush a horse with his boys without any expectations or pressure. I encouraged him to simply “be” with his sons and the horses. He stood his ground at the fence.

I stepped into the arena and our session unfolded. Dad was attentive throughout yet did not step in, despite several invitations from his sons. The session ended, we spoke briefly, he was patient and his voice soft as his boys buckled their seatbelts. I did not expect to see him again. His presence told me that something shifted. His breath was deep and slow and eye contact minimal as he left. The wheels in his mind were clearly turning.

The following week I expected the boy’s mother to bring them to their session. Nope, here was Dad again… and again… and again. The next three weeks he shared various unsolicited feeble excuses about why he was bringing them to session instead of Mom. Each week he stood at the gate. Each week we gently invited him in. Each week he stood his ground and did not enter the arena. Until the fifth session. Our biggest horse, standing 17 hands (68”) stared at him from across the arena. As the father stood at the fence, the large paint draft horse approached him. The horse walked across the arena with intent. Suddenly this big man appeared small as he stood face to face with the big horse who stopped just a few feet in front of him. The boys had created an obstacle course and were leading horses around the arena and through the course. Over and over they navigated the course as children will do. The big paint horse remained as still as a statue as did the big man. The boys finished their activity. I signaled to the equine specialist and pointed to the far gate. The equine specialist guided the boys to get a snack, water, and look for the eggs that our hens elusively hide from us on a daily basis. Dad and horse remained still at the gate.

As the boys left the arena, the father’s posture melted. His 6’4 frame draped over the fence as if for the first time in decades he was allowed to relax his body. He hung there for several minutes. The horse remained still. When he stood and looked at me I saw in his eyes the 18 year old boy who was sent to war. His voice sounded very young as he turned and asked “do you think this one would walk the course with me?” I put a halter on the big horse and they walked the course together over and over, just as his children had. The horse matched the rhythm of the man’s footfall. He then asked me to join him. We walked in silence around and around the arena, outside of the course his boys had built. He began telling me a story about the war. Tears fell as we walked and talked. It was a story off loss, regret, fear, shame, and blame. As he finished telling the story he sighed deeply, as did the horse. We walked again in silence for several ‘rounds of the arena. He then took the halter off of the horse and began picking up the obstacle course. This seemed important and I did not stop him to tell him he did not have to clean up. The horse followed him as he stacked cones, rolled barrels, and piled the poles that his boys had used to create the course. When he finished he looked at me and shared that he had never told a single person that story. He had carried the burden all of these years. “Who knew a horse would lighten the load and help me share it with a person?” He then met his children at the minivan and off they went.

We did not speak of this for a while.  We closed our work with his children a few months later. At this closing session he asked to again talk with this horse. After spending a few minutes with his horse he shared with me that although he did not understand what had happened, he was grateful for the space and time that we gave him to lean on the fence and be still. He shared that the obstacle course became the theatre for the story in Vietnam and the horse became his higher power – unwavering, omnipresent, and forgiving. He walked the course over and over trying to find a different way than what had transpired. He eventually determined that he had done the best he could in a horrible situation. He shared the story with the horse and then with me. Neither of us left him or judged him. From here he was able to step into therapy with new eyes and begin to truly heal. This was the first step towards true healing.

That was 12 years ago. The boys are grown, the family moved from Arizona to California, and that big horse has passed. I received an “accidental” text a few months ago from his wife. We reconnected to catch up. She shared that she was not sure of the details of that day but she knows that the walk with that big horse set in motion events that changed their lives. Her husband was finally able to heal from the invisible wounds of war and they came to know each other in a way that she never thought possible.

A few years ago you may have read a blog that I wrote about pressure – horses respond and learn by the release, not the application of pressure – so do we. In this case we provided the safe space, removed all pressure and waited.

The welcome that our troops received when returning from Vietnam was far less than welcoming. If you come across a veteran or service member, no matter how old or young, look them in the eyes and take a moment to thank them for their service. It is the least we can do for the freedom we enjoy.

Finding Your Ecosystem

I live my life in metaphor. I do not know how I got there or when it started. I just know it has always been. I feel it deep with my soul. It makes it difficult to communicate sometimes. I see connectedness everywhere yet do not always have the ability to put this connectedness into words. Today I will try my best…

I am trained as a Gestalt therapist and primarily practice equine-assisted psychotherapy utilizing the Eagala model. (www.eagala.org) At its root the word Gestalt means “whole”. On that note, I will make a departure from writing about working with horses in therapy and look at a much bigger picture.

As I stood in my garden I could hear the hummingbirds above me enjoying the nectar from the flowers of my Moringa tree. I could not see them but their vibrations were unmistakable. They then darted out of the tree, disappeared across the pasture, then reappear just as quickly, only to once more be out of sight but not earshot. I peered up into the branches of the Maringa tree and marveled at both its beauty and the speed at which it grows. I then felt a large presence at my shoulder as Addy, our 9-year-old Morgan horse, breathed a hot breath into my ear before stretching his long neck to take a nibble at the Maringa tree. He loves that tree – its tender leaves, beans, and sinewy branches in the morning and its shade in the afternoon. Although the Maringa tree blooms year round, it is most heavy with blossoms in the Spring. This means bees. Lots, and lots of bees pollinating their little hearts out. I realize that standing in this spot I have created my own little eco system. It is all connected. Without the blossoms we have no bees, without the bees we have no beans, without the beans there are no new trees, without the trees we have no air, without the air we have no life. Okay, that’s a little dramatic but in the grand scheme of things it is true. We need the green stuff so we can breathe. So in that grand scheme where do I fit in? And what about Addy? What do we contribute to the process? While we have plenty of sunlight here in the desert, without water and fertilizer the Maringa tree won’t grow. I make sure it has lots of water and he provides the fertilizer. We are part of that connected process. Where does the hummingbird come in? She was the catalyst. She grabbed my attention and pulled me into this lovely awareness of the connectedness that was swirling above my head and growing under my feet.

As a therapist I find that every element in this little eco system shows up in the therapeutic process as a metaphor. If you are reading this and you are not a therapist, I would bet you can find relevance in your life without looking too far.  The hummingbird may represent a subtle comment or email that leads someone to dial the phone to inquire about therapy. The water and fertilizer is the non-judgmental voice on the other end who helps the interest grow and schedules that first appointment. The therapist might be the tree offering nourishment or comfort as the process begins. When I lead groups I feel like the bee – making learning and healing contagious and take on an energy all its own. The blossoms – that is easy. The blossoms are the hope of growth and healing that therapy can provide. The flower itself can be bitter. We help those who come to see us lean in, like the hummingbird, to find the sweet nectar of growth and healing that lies within. We sometimes have to hoover in place – holding that safe and sacred space. For me this is an honor and gift. Then there are the beans that provide nourishment to fuel the therapeutic process. Early in treatment I think of them as the skills we teach to help folks tolerate the discomfort of looking within. The beans eventually grow long and strong and produce seeds that have wings that carry them in the wind. Isn’t that what we do? We help people become strong and move into the world differently and share the strength, love, healing, caring etc that they have found. The wind… what about the wind? You name the wind!!

Now, step outside, take your shoes off and put your feet in the grass. Wiggle your toes, walk around, notice your footfall. Get out of your head and come to your senses. Connect to the Earth and look around. What is your little eco system – in your backyard, your office, your family, your social circle?

Can’t slow down? Try going faster.

I often move fast because I have things to do, places to be, dreams to achieve. As I move faster, at a certain point my effectiveness reduces. The quality of my efforts go down. I need to slow down to be more grounded, settled, and to make better decisions. So why is it so tough to slow down from going fast?

Transitioning from one speed to another in and of itself can be hard (i.e. getting out of bed in the morning, coming down after an exciting game, etc.). There can also be a compulsive or addictive quality to being busy, going fast, feeling like you are being productive. Much of American culture is about doing, and doing more. There can be a “high” associated with doing. The habit of doing becomes even more ingrained if you grew up in a family culture and or are in a work culture that champions productivity or achievement.

When I try to go from a fast pace to a slower one, it can feel irritating, annoying, like I am wasting time. I believe in mindfulness, not as a buzzword, but as a state that is useful to access. I am able to do this to varying degrees throughout my day. It helps to become more aware, and when I am more aware I am closer with my intuitive side. But when I am going fast and I think of slowing down, I just want to hurry up and slow down to get that out of the way. That approach has not worked all that well for me.

What has worked is using movement as a way to more gradually settle and be more tuned into myself and my surroundings. It starts with awareness. Can I be aware of the pace I have been going? If so, I have the chance to do something differently. Mindfulness is about attention; where am I placing my attention?

When I awaken to the moment, and find that I am racing, I have options. I can actively slow down, become aware of my breath, become aware of my movements. When I have struggled with slowing down, I have often continued the same pace while noticing my breath, noticing my movement, paying attention to the 5 senses. From this place I can gradually taper my speed to settle back into my body, back into the moment. Having a regular and frequent practice of mindfulness (with movement or being still) helps with being able to settle in this way. My mind is more apt to go back to a more mindful state if it is a recent and familiar mind space.

If I am struggling with slowing down, there are times I have sped up. Sometimes it is ok to just get the energy out and move fast. Once I have done that, I have noticed that my awareness is pretty thin at those higher speeds, and I am usually able to begin to slow gradually. This can be done through walking, art work, writing or other kinds of movement.

Self-regulation is largely about awareness. I believe in anchoring to the present moment through awareness of normal breath (not deep breathing necessarily), and through movement as needed. From this place of awareness, movement of different types and speeds can be used to come to a more settled place.

Efficiency and Connection

I was visiting a nursery with my family, exploring what plants we might like in our yard. I am not exaggerating when I write that we looked at over 100 plants. I made sure that fact was known as I let out a frustrated sigh when my family members stopped short of the exit to check out one more. My uncle stopped to bend a flower to my husband’s nose- literally stopped to smell the roses- and I realized how I was the one who lost sight of the goal.

Efficiency is the ability to achieve a goal without waste. Efficiency is a prized talent in our fast-paced world. It saves us time, makes us money, pleases our bosses, and gets our dreams accomplished. I would not have many of my life’s successes without my efficient approach.

Relationally, a goal to be efficient can create a pressured, transactional nature to relationships. I do not want my family members to feel rushed to communicate their ideas. I do not want those around me to feel the pressure of having to express their emotions so concisely, for subject matters to be closed and off the docket, to feel like they’re another one of my checklists. What I ultimately seek is to enjoy my time and space with others and have them feel relaxed enough to enjoy it with me.

So, I must make peace with the fact that I need to leave efficiency out of my relationships. My relational goal is connection, and there is no wasted time, effort, or energy in connection.

I will leave with a quote from Winnie the Pooh:

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.

“Pooh” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet taking Pooh’s paw, “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

Spread Quality Time This Virus Season

“There’s a lot of fear out there right now. If this virus spreads anything, I hope it’s love and compassion, and not the actual virus! With a lot of closings, cancellations, and people staying home, it’s an opportunity to connect and embrace love and belonging. Stay well.” — My hopeful colleague

For the sake of our physical health we have been receiving recommendations about “social distancing.” For the sake of our mental health, I hope we also keep in mind the need for social connection. I am understanding that medical research supports the need for “social distancing” in this time, and I know that mental health research strongly supports the need for social connection as a part of wellbeing. Thankfully, I don’t think these are mutually exclusive.

Many of the events we were looking forward to have been cancelled, which may include your group yoga practice, the concert you were looking forward to, and the suspension of professional sports. I think fondly of A League of their Own- a fictional movie about the nonfictional rise of The All American Girls Professional Baseball League during WWII. Even then we knew we needed our sports, or other means to unite. It is no less true today. In this time of canceled events, school, maybe even work, we need to find other ways to connect. Stay safe, and begin brainstorming ways to spread quality time. To help you get started…

Quality time with loved ones:

  • Barbeque
  • Enjoy slow meals at the table
  • Check-ins. Tell me a “high point” and “low point” of your day/week/year/life
  • Family board game night (my favorites are “Heads Up” or “Guess Who” for younger kids, and “Cranium” and cards for teens-adults)
  • Is your child into gaming? Have them teach you one of their games and play alongside them. Or dust off your Wii and play virtual Frisbee golf.
  • Backyard games/sports

Quality time with self:

  • Read for pleasure
  • Begin an adult coloring book
  • Journal
  • Pick up a new hobby (might I suggest a youtube video to teach you how to knit)
  • Practice an existing hobby that’s boxed away in your garage
  • Write a letter
  • Get creative!

Article by Catherine Lowrey, PsyD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Endless Possibilities When You Follow Your Heart

Sometimes we spend far too much time analyzing every aspect of our lives. Since the day we are born milestones for our lives are predetermined. Take your first steps by age one, tell stories by age four, think about the future by age 13, have a degree by age 22, have children before 30, retire by 60. Our lives are on a timeline and often times we do what is expected of us.

Our human nature tells us to remain in routine and often times by doing so we neglect the best parts of ourselves. Stepping out of our comfort zone builds up new skills and allows parts of ourselves to heal that we didn’t even know needed healing.

The truth is we live in a world where possibilities are endless; we don’t have to follow the time line; we can follow our hearts. I have discovered that when I follow my heart, it has guided me to what I really needed. There was always one clear answer for me, when I slowed down and allowed myself to listen. I have yet to feel regret or doubt when I acted on the choices from my heart. There was a consistent sense of acting in alignment with my true self.

The fundamental basis for functioning in a heartfelt way is mindfulness. Mindfulness means “Sinking down” below the turbulent surface of our thoughts, projections, fears, and perceptions that all clamor for my attention. It means having a still center from which we can be aware of the quieter, subtler signals in the body and emotions which can be our greatest source of information. We become non-judgmental and separate our thoughts and emotional reactions. we discover that our heart and body can safely and fearlessly guide us.

Mindfulness is the practice of letting go. Letting go of attachments to desires, fears; expectations of self, others, and the future; Attachments of what others may think and feel about us. When we can mindfully make decisions from a connected place and let go of the stress, indecision, and doubt that is rooted in fear; Fear of the unknown.

Mindfulness is essential in that it trains us to detach from the narrative of fear-based thoughts. By being mindful and accepting the emotion and feeling as is, we teach ourselves to be “feeling the fear and doing it anyway,” trusting this and letting the process guide you.

With mindfulness-based decision making, we develop an incredible sense of freedom to authentically move through the world. As the Buddhist teachings read, it helps to cultivate courageous “self-acceptance” and a “fearless heart.”

The more we open up and follow our heart the greater the opportunities. Deep in us we have the greatest meanings, we gain a different type of knowledge; One that is spontaneous and unconcerned with outcomes, we just have to be mindful to see it. What we concern ourselves with is our internal experiences that can carry us to new levels of self-discovery.

After all, isn’t self-actualization what we are after or is that just Maslow?

Article by Jessica Lamar, Psy.D.

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